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How Motivational Interviewing Is Used For Treating An Addiction

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Richard Foster, LICDC-CS

April 8, 2019

Motivational interviewing is a non-confrontational way to guide an individual towards a recovery goal in the addiction treatment process. This process help individuals come around to seeking treatment on their own terms, increasing the chances of success.

Humans aren’t prone to change because someone tells them to change, especially when it comes to the disease of addiction. Change has to come from a decision and all-out commitment to fight the addiction and that’s not something that requires a commitment coming from within.

Instead, therapists treating drug or alcohol addiction employ a tactic known as motivational interviewing, a non-confrontational approach used in place of traditional non-direct interviewing. Rather than the traditional model of listening and reflecting back what is said, a therapist trained in motivational interviewing directs the conversation toward the specific goal of recovery. The approach can take time but helps someone discover for themselves why achieving recovery is a sanest and important goal in moving forward with their lives.

How Does Motivational Interviewing Work In Treating Addiction?

Traditional interviewing involves listening and reflecting back what an individual is thinking or feeling. Motivational interviewing goes a few steps further in identifying and pursuing any change-related statements made by the individual. A therapist conducting a motivational interview can achieve this task by asking open-ended questions, affirming any positive or honest statements, listening carefully and being capable of reflecting back what they have heard, and summarizing clearly what was said during the interview.

These skills can provide a framework for setting and achieving goals toward recovery. The primary goals of the motivational interview are to gain the confidence and respect of the drug- or alcohol-addicted individual, so when topics of change or recovery arise, they have a point to return to as future conversations about the consequences of drug or alcohol use arise.

The motivational interviewer asks the individual to connect negative experiences or consequences to alcohol or drug use, recognize that change will help reduce these unwanted consequences and setting small, attainable goals toward facilitating this change. In doing so, the resolve of the person is gradually increased, leading to more positive outcomes for recovery in the long-run.

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Make Them Change Their Idea

Addiction is seductive. It warps our basic brain function and holds the body and mind hostage. To suggest that simply telling someone they have the power of this monster is ludicrous. Instead, motivational interviewing works by helping them see the small successes they have already had, whether in the form of awareness, or in the steps it took to recognize the addiction, and to build on that success to broader successes toward their recovery goal.

Motivational interviewing is a form of empowerment in which the therapist aligns any intrinsic desires to break free from the addiction with affirmation and concrete solutions toward attaining this goal. So, more than making it the individual’s idea to change, motivational interviewing helps them understand they have the power to overcome the addiction.

The Core Goals Of Motivational Interviewing Therapy In Treating Addiction

The goals of motivational therapy in treating alcohol and drug addiction involve aiding an individual in considering their own interest in reducing negative consequences in their lives related to drinking or drug use, helping them identify and vocalize a desire to change, addressing any reluctance toward committing to recovery, creating small, attainable goals toward progress in recovery, empowering the individual to create and achieve these goals, and using this progress as motivation toward greater progress.

Goals of the Motivational Interview in Helping the Drug- or Alcohol-Addicted Individual:

  • Consider self-interest in reducing negative consequences
  • Identify and vocalize desire to change
  • Address any reluctance
  • Create small, attainable goals
  • Empower the individual to create and achieve goals
  • Use progress as motivation toward additional progress

Research Supports Effectiveness Of Motivational Interviewing In Treatment Of Substance Use Disorders

Research comparing nine intervention studies in which motivational interviewing was used to address heavy drinking in those both addicted to, and not addicted to alcohol. Each of the nine studies indicated significant positive results with the motivational interviewing group, compared with the control groups.

Additional studies on adolescent populations with substance use disorders reveals similar successes. Those who received motivational interviewing revealed greater long-term success rates than those individuals who did not receive this form of therapy.

Retention rates of motivational interviewing participants are also higher in inpatient rehab settings than among those groups not exposed to motivational interviewing techniques.

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